The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
When the classical music gods were selecting artists who would have enough cachet to do whatever they wanted, thankfully one of the ones they blessed was Yo-Yo Ma.
Yes, Ma certainly has a substantial catalog of benchmark recordings of the standard cello repertoire. But his greatest contribution to modern music has been genre-blending, culture-highlighting music like his Silk Road Project and Appalachian albums with violinist Mark O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer. Ma and Meyer are together again, this time with bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan and mandolin superstar Chris Thile for The Goat Rodeo Sessions.
The artists have been fond of highlighting the definitions of “goat rodeo” as situations where everything has to go right for things to work – i.e., this project was an artistic highwire act. Well, yes and no. Yes, genre blends can be risky – give violinist Nigel Kennedy’s unfortunate new release The Four Elements a listen, or don’t.
But here, we are talking about Ma, Meyer and Thile, who have virtually unblemished collaborative records, and Duncan, whose career in bluegrass and country has included work with Mark Knopfler, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant and has been named fiddle player of the year by the Academy of Country Music five times.
These guys are good, and they’re really good – lo, great – together.
For many listeners who come to Goat Rodeo through Ma’s classical celebrity, Duncan will be the real discovery.
He gets his own spotlight as the glue of sorts on the lead-off track on the album, Attaboy, an progressively intricate swirl of reels that lets everyone show off their instruments and their virtuosity. It’s instant affirmation that this mix will work, but it hardly sits still. Quarter Chicken Dark is a funkier expression of the quartet, and then it switches up with Duncan taking over the mandolin and Thile on Guitar for Helping Hand. The album also features Meyer on piano (Franz and the Eagle), Meyer and Thile on gamba on Here and Heaven, one of two vocal duets with Thile and Crooked Still frontwoman Aoife O’Donovan that also features Duncan on fretless banjo – yes, banjo on Sony Classical. Ma moves through the original tunes playing whatever is needed from rhythmic anchor to melodic lead.
The stylistic mix of bluegrass and classical yields a more easygoing sound than either genre on its own. The real beauty is no apparent self-consciousness that this group is creating a new mix. The Goat Rodeo Sessions simply demonstrates that great musicianship is great musicianship, regardless of the label.
Sep16Filed under: Arts administration, Central Kentucky Arts News, Classical Music, Country music, Music, Musicals, Norton Center for the Arts, Theater; Tagged as: Blue Man Group, Centre College, George Foreman, Goodman Theatre, Gustavo Dudamel, Lyle Lovett, National Steinbeck Center, New York Philharmonic, Norton Center for the Arts, Punch Brothers, Ravinia Festival, Star Course, Steven A. Hoffman, Tony Bennett, University of Illinois, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Washington Pavilion of Arts, Yo-Yo Ma
DANVILLE — Steven A. Hoffman navigates the dining hall at Centre College like a returning student, heaping some salad fixings on the plate, hitting the sandwich counter for a generous serving of sliced turkey on top, and noting to his guest about to default to Diet Coke that the soda fountain also has Diet Dr Pepper.
In his role as the new director of the Norton Center for the Arts on Centre’s campus, Hoffman doesn’t necessarily have to deal with students on a daily basis. But he wants to.
“Having been here two months before the students arrived, I was kind of waiting,” says Hoffman, who started at Centre in July. “Now that they’re here, the energy is something that I was hoping for, and it’s just great.”
Hoffman, who succeeds George Foreman as the Norton Center’s director, came to Centre from two non-collegiate posts — at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., and the Washington Pavilion of Arts in Sioux Falls, S.D.
But Hoffman’s arts management roots are in academic settings.
“When I was an undergrad at the University of Illinois, I kind of put all my eggs in one basket and decided I wanted to go to U of I because they had a group called Star Course,” Hoffman says. “Star Course was the student organization that ran and presented all of the concerts on campus. I said, ‘I want to run that before I graduate.’”
Before his senior year, when he was a candidate to manage the group, Hoffman withdrew, thinking he needed to focus on his major, actuarial science. He figured out that what he really needed to do was change his major.
So he focused on business, got jobs at places like Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Ravinia Festival, and went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the business school’s arts administration program. There, he advised the student presenting group.
“I worked with students who were all dressed in black with black fingernail polish and jet-black hair — it was the goth time,” says Hoffman, who was at Wisconsin in the early 1990s. “I said, we have 30,000 people on campus. How do we program five nights a week for a community, and not just ourselves? It was really about the programming.”
Hoffman has since worked around the country until landing the Centre College gig. He takes over a performing arts center already known for outdoing itself: booking world-class artists from Yo-Yo Ma and the New York Philharmonic to Lyle Lovett and Tony Bennett to play a 1,200-student campus in Danville, a town of just over 15,000.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich